"My subjects are white, furry, and have long tails," laughs Sue Bloomfield '74. "I'm one of those lucky souls who actually enjoys going to work."
While spending hours each day with volunteer rats won't rank high on most top-10 lists, those little guys stand to play a stellar role in the study of space travel and bone loss, says Sue, the new co-leader of the Bone Loss Team at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.
Established in 1997, the NSBRI is a NASA-selected consortium of 12 graduate-level institutions whose research is paving the way for safe human space exploration. Teams explore the harmful effects of microgravity on balance and orientation, cardiovascular changes, muscle weakening, sleep disturbances, fitness and rehabilitation, and more.
An associate professor of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M, Sue says that her team's focus is two-fold: to understand and combat the negative effects of long-duration space travel on bones, and to apply the discoveries to treat conditions such as osteoporosis and kidney stone formation back on Earth.
"Astronauts in space lose more bone in one month than postmenopausal women do in one year," says Sue, explaining that an earlier study found that blood flow to the tibia and femur decreased after seven days of simulated weightlessness, and worsened by day 28. Given that three- to six-month sojourns aboard the International Space Station are typical, concerns for astronauts' health are valid. Nor are they likely to lessen; long-term NASA plans call for an exploration-class mission to Mars--a two-and-a-half to three year trip. Bone loss to astronauts could become more severe and greatly increase their risk of fractures.
But there is good news. Promising results lie in the group's preliminary studies on simulated weightlessness in rats, which suggest that estrogen and Vitamin D, or better yet, agents that stimulate estrogen and Vitamin D receptors, may prevent bone loss.
Sue's fascination with the space program took off during her doctoral program at Ohio State. There she had research opportunities directly linked to the space program. "At Oberlin, I was reasonably smart but lacked direction," admits the former biology student, who earned her master's degree in exercise physiology at the University of Iowa. "My Oberlin experience taught me that I was supposed to contribute to society." A noted author, she was honored with the American Physiology Society Research Career Enhancement Award in 1997 and the Texas A&M College of Education Outstanding New Faculty Member Award in 1994. "My best grad students are very much like Oberlin students," she says. "Eager to learn."
For more information on the National Space Biomedical Research Institute's bone loss study,